Sorry about the long silence – I’ve been away on vacation back in Canada for the past two weeks. Thanks for those that wrote in wondering where I’d gone. I’m back and will be posting more regularly going forward.
Times flies, it’s been almost a year since I’ve made the Netherlands my home. I’ve been working part-time for a while and been more than happy to forget about the tax bureau. But now transitioning into full-time work, I will most definitely have to pay some serious taxes – in a jurisdictions with one of the most unforgiving tax rates in the world. It is a hard pill to swallow, especially considering I have worked in Canada, where taxes are hardly a walk in the park. High but tolerable taxes no longer. Very soon, the Dutch will make the Canadian tax bureau look like child’s play while administering the distinctly western European slaps on my future paycheques.
This bothered me a lot. It bothered me so much that I mused aloud one day whether it would make more sense for me to negotiate my salary down with my boss at the expense of some other extracurricular perks. But then my senses interrupted this rather ridiculous monologue by reminding my pride how many multiples my friends are making of my salary, as is. So in short, short-changing my self out of spite for taxes is like cutting off my nose to spite my face – a fruitless activity.
It takes a lot to justify paying into a social welfare system knowing it had done little to get me to where I am now, and that my stay may very well be temporary, and that it’s unlikely I will ever receive any kind of handout from the system given my situation. It takes even more to know that for all the risks I have taken with my career and life, I have no choice but to let go of such a large portion of the hard-fought rewards to subsidize some very visible and truly abhorrent displays of entitlement, laziness, and pure stupidity.
I dwelled on this for a long time, and engaged in many duels with my friends, boyfriend, family members, or anyone that would listen. I am no tree hugging liberal, nor do I subscribe to the Libertarian variety. As a former business student, I understand market implications of the roles of government, the perils of high taxation, the justification behind a progressive tax system, and the necessity and limitations of the welfare system.
In Canada, I can safely say the system works well enough, so as to provide a social safety net without visibly irking tax-paying members of society. We certainly pay a fair amount of taxes, but Canada is also an entity that stretches from coast to coast, funded on the back of only 30 something million citizens that, ok, might have caught a break with natural resources. Regardless, when I drive out of the city through stretches of highway with scarce settlements, or hike through a well-maintained national park the size of a European city, or see snow removal trucks that sweep away the snow and salt the roads during winter storms, when I got good quality public school education and was subsidized during my university years, see my parents with access to doctors with no problem – I can appreciate where my tax dollars go to work.
In the Netherlands, taxes go to provide not only infrastructure maintenance, it provides a very thick cushion upon which its people can fall back on. I’m told this collective grip that now symbolizes European social and political attitudes arose out of the ashes of WWII, where the war destructed so completely and indiscriminately, that a social contract amongst its people, and between the people and the government was formed. This silent contract pushed everyone to work hard, and in turn, provided a blanket of comfort that would protect them should any ill fall upon them. I don’t think it’s insignificant to point out that Europe in general, and perhaps even more so immediately after the post war years, still recovering from the nationalistic fervour that turned against each other, were very much bound by its specific traditions and rules behind each nation.
I am not familiar with the Latin countries, but I know for a fact that in northern Europe, as well as countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, there is such a thing as the “norm”. They were, and still are to a large degree, conformist societies, where you are scolded by friends and neighbours alike if you step out of line. Thus, people more or less behaved in predictable manners that were easy to manage. However, demographic change came along with more immigration and an increasingly aging population. New immigrants, particularly those from Muslim countries with cultural ideas and traditions alien to their hosts, became the new challenge. The natives could no longer make reasonable predictions and assessments on their behavioural pattern, and their policies to open up their welfare system while shutting off its job market proved disastrous, resulting in more backlash against the newcomers, and inevitably more friction for everyone.
But despite setbacks, Europe is steadfastly holding on to its value system. And it shows. Ideologically, it’s very hard to swallow – what kind of incentives are you creating for your youth, your working population, and your people in general, when you skew your policies to accommodate the lowest denominator? But when I look around, I see a comparatively content and calm population that is guaranteed a certain standard of living, despite ability or ambition. This, compared to the sink or swim mentality that most Anglo-Saxon economies are built upon, is categorically different.
From a cultural and sociological point of view, this produces an interesting phenomenon. By padding the floor and the ceiling, the heavy-welfare states insulate its people from the extreme ups and downs of life. It’s all too easy for me to look at Europe as one flattened plain with the top shaved to suit the average. But there are certain aspects of human sufferings, certain cruelties, anxieties, and desperations of life, that have been all but eliminated from their menu of possible life experiences. Despite folklore and common belief, it is perhaps easier to go from rags to, while not riches, but certainly a comfortable middle-class existence in Europe, than it would be in the US. But this kind of stories are much less compelling. Perhaps this is why Europeans, while distaining many ideas emanating from America, find its culture and all its extremities fascinating.
Ideologically, it’s hard not to subscribe to some element of the conservative agenda – where a system should be designed to reward the best and penalize the lazy and incompetent. And every policy, including that of taxes, is crafted on the back of such infallible dogma. That is, until life tosses out a curveball and you are struck by unforeseeable events, or burdened by the illness of someone in the family. If not, perhaps the strain of having to be perfect all the time breaks you – perfectly studious to get into a good school and graduate with good grades, perfectly presentable with sales skills that will get you a job in a competitive job market, perfectly balancing career and life so as to financially and emotionally sustain a family, perfect and far-sighted enough to always be on the look-out for a better career and always make long-term decisions that are good for you and your family. I mean, just check out the shelves of self-improvement materials in a bookstore at your local mall.
A perfect market economy does not really allow for catastrophic mistakes. Given the longevity of our lives and the increasingly complex world we are navigating through, it is next to impossible not to make several over the course of our lifetimes. A thin social welfare layer makes it that much harder to recover after a fall. And as unpredictable as human actions and reactions are, the chain reaction that ignites upon certain events may have unforeseeable repercussions. At our most vulnerable point, I’m beginning to think that ideology will go out the window, and you will want all the help you can get.
There’s a very sweet mentally challenged couple that lives in our neighbourhood in Utrecht. My boyfriend has lovingly named them the “Hellos”, because the outgoing male member of the twosome always waves hello to everyone he passes by in a very loud voice, complete with a 180 degree arm swing. I’m told both are able to find work, and they live together and independently in a government-subsidized house. Sometimes I see them from our front window and my eyes get a little moist when I imagine what kind of lives they might have had, had they not lived here. It’s good to know that people like them are not lost in some vague calculations over productivity measures and GDP increases, because they are someone’s children, brother or sister, or uncle and aunt. Instead of living with worries and heartbreak, their families can rest easy and carry on with their lives, knowing their loved ones are not discarded nor abused by the system, but given a chance to have the best lives they can.
Thinking about these is a good start in acclimatizing myself to these rather hostile tax rates. If that doesn’t work, I’ll at least have the comforting knowledge that some – Danes, pay even more.
picture source: andreregitano